‘And we ask your abundant blessing, Lord, on these, the outcast dead . . .’
There is a murmured response from the group gathered on the bank below the castle walls. But Ruth Galloway, standing at the back, says nothing. She is wearing the expression of polite neutrality she assumes whenever God is mentioned. This mask has stood her in good stead over the years and she sees no reason to drop it now. But she approves of the Prayers for the Outcast Dead. This brief ecumenical service is held every year for the unknown dead of Norwich: the bodies thrown into unmarked graves, the paupers, the plague victims, forgotten, unmourned, except by this motley collection of archaeologists, historians and sundry hangers-on.
‘Lord, you told us that not a sparrow falls without our Father in Heaven knowing. We know that these people were known to you and loved by you . . .’
The vicar has a reedy hesitant voice which gets lost before it reaches Ruth. Now she can only hear Ted, one of the field archaeologists, giving the responses in a booming baritone.
‘We will remember them.’
She doesn’t know if Ted has any religious beliefs. All she knows about him is that he was brought up in Bolton and may or may not be Irish. If he’s Irish he’s probably a Catholic, like DCI Harry Nelson who, however hard he denies it, has a residual belief in heaven, hell and all points in between. Thinking of Nelson makes Ruth uncomfortable. She moves away, further up the hill, and one of the people gathered around the vicar, a tall woman in a red jacket, turns and smiles at her. Ruth smiles back. Janet Meadows, local historian and expert on the unnamed dead. Ruth first encountered Janet over a year ago when examining the bones of a medieval bishop believed to have miraculous powers. It was Cathbad who put Ruth in touch with Janet and, even now, Ruth can’t believe that her druid friend won’t suddenly appear in the shadow of the castle, purple cloak fluttering, sixth sense on red alert. But Cathbad is miles away and magical powers have their limitations, as she knows only too well.
Words float towards Ruth, borne on the light summer breeze.
‘Remember . . . lost . . . gone before . . . heavenly father . . . all-merciful . . . grace . . . forgiveness.’
So many words, thinks Ruth – as she has thought many times before – to say so little. The dead are dead and no words, however resonant, can bring them back. Ruth is a forensic archaeologist and she is well acquainted with the dead. She believes in remembering them, in treating their bones with respect, but she doesn’t expect ever to see them again, carried heavenwards on clouds of glory. Unconsciously, she looks upwards at the pale blue evening sky. It’s June, nearly the longest day.
A loud ‘Amen’ from Ted signals that the service is at an end and Ruth walks towards the knot of people sitting or standing on seats cut into the grassy bank. She approaches Ted but sees that he’s talking to Trace Richards, another of the field archaeology team. Trace’s aggressively alternative appearance – purple hair, piercings – belies the fact that she’s from a very wealthy family and has, in fact, just got engaged to a prominent local businessman. Ruth has never really got on with Trace so she veers off at the last minute and finds herself next to Janet.
‘I like this service,’ says Janet. ‘We should remember them, the ordinary people. Not just the kings and the bishops and the people rich enough to build castles.’
‘It’s one of the reasons I became an archaeologist,’ says Ruth. ‘To find out about how ordinary people lived their lives.’ She thinks of Erik, her ex-tutor and mentor, saying, ‘We are their recorders. We set down their daily lives, their everyday deeds, their hopes and dreams, for all eternity.’ But Erik is dead now and his hopes and dreams are forgotten, except by those people, like – whose lives he has marked for ever.
‘You’ve been digging at the castle haven’t you?’ says Janet.
‘Yes,’ says Ruth. ‘right near here, by the entrance to the cafe.’
‘We think we’ve found the bodies of some prisoners who were executed.’
‘How do you know they were prisoners?’
‘Well, they don’t seem to have been buried with much ceremony, no shrouds or coffins. Some have their hands still bound. And the bodies were lying prone, face down, north to south.’
‘North to south?’
‘Christian burials are usually west to east, head to the west, feet to the east.’
Janet nods thoughtfully. ‘They really were outside Christian charity, weren’t they? They might not even have committed very dreadful crimes either. In the early nineteenth century you could be hanged for being a pickpocket.’
‘I know,’ says Ruth. She doesn’t mention one particular skeleton, excavated yesterday, which she believes may be that of a woman who was guilty of a far more terrible crime.
‘Can you date the bodies?’ asks Janet.
‘We can do Carbon 14 tests on the bones,’ says Ruth. ‘Look at any objects found in the grave, that sort of thing. And we know that convicted felons were mainly buried in the castle precincts in the mid to late nineteenth century. Before that they were sent to the surgeons for experimentation. It was actually a crime to bury them. And before that, of course, they were tarred and put in metal cages.’
‘Yes. Apparently, you could see human remains hanging in gibbets right up to Victorian times.’
‘There’s a Gibbet Street in the city,’ says Janet. ‘And Heigham Street used to be known as Hangman’s Lane. Executions were big events in Norwich,’ she continues, her voice dry. ‘They were held here on Castle Hill. Sometimes there would be a fair or a market too, just to add to the merriment, then the bell of St Peter Mancroft Church would ring and the prisoner would be led out, following the chaplain and the prison governor.’
Janet, like all good historians, always makes Ruth think that she can actually see the past. She looks up at the castle, square and dark against the sky. She can almost hear the prayers of the chaplain, like the words of the vicar earlier, lost upon the air. Then the great bell tolling, the jeers of the crowd, the white face of the prisoner before the hood is pulled over his head.
‘It must have been ghastly,’ she says.
‘Ghastly?’ says a voice behind her. ‘What’s ghastly?’ Ruth turns and sees her Head of Department, Phil Trent, apparently dressed for cricket in white trousers, open-necked shirt and a panama hat.
‘Nothing,’ says Ruth.
Phil doesn’t pursue the matter. He rarely seems interested in what Ruth has to say although she is fairly popular with him at the moment because she has just got a publishing deal for her first book. The book, about an excavation in Lancashire, has nothing to do with Phil or the department but, nevertheless, he is taking a good percentage of the credit. Even so, he never usually shows any enthusiasm for her company but today he is positively brimming with bonhomie, seizing her arm and steering her away from Janet. Ruth looks back apologetically and Janet gives her a smile and an odd little wave.
‘Fantastic news Ruth,’ says Phil.
Ruth composes her face. The news could be promotion for Phil or new funding for the department. She doubts if it is anything to do with her. It could even be personal. Phil lives with Ruth’s friend Shona and they have recently had a baby. Maybe they’re getting married?
‘You know our find earlier,’ he says, lowering his voice. ‘Our’ is pushing it, Phil wasn’t even on site when Ruth uncovered the woman’s body, though he came quickly enough when he heard the news.
‘Well, there’s been some interest,’ he says.
‘From English Heritage?’ asks Ruth, genuinely excited. If English Heritage fund a really big dig, who knows what they could find? Norwich Castle dates back to medieval times, there must be layers and layers of treasures beneath their feet.
‘Better than that,’ says Phil his face holy with joy. ‘Television.’
Ruth drives home through apparently endless traffic. She has left the other archaeologists having a party in the castle grounds, with warm white wine and vegetarian snacks supplied by Janet. This is one of the worst things about being a working mother. Oh, the work’s all right. You can make arrangements for the work. It’s all the other stuff. The drinks after work, the leaving dos, the Friday nights when someone suggests a curry. All the times, in fact, when the important bonding gets done. Ruth has to miss all that, and she’s lost count of the times when she’s been the last to hear about a dig because ‘we discussed it last night in the pub’. Phil is a great one for networking, he’s always skulking off with a few cronies to plot over pasta but, then again, Phil is only a working father. Having children doesn’t seem to impinge on his professional life at all.
But Ruth has no time to lie on the grass talking about the dead. As it is, it’ll be past eight before she collects Kate from the childminder. Sandra is always very understanding but Ruth doesn’t want to use up all her credit in one go. She never knows when she might need another favour. So she embarks on the tedious drive from Norwich to King’s Lynn, all the way across the fattest part of the county. But as she switches lanes, gets stuck at red lights, and chooses countless short cuts which actually take more time but at least keep her moving, she isn’t thinking about her colleagues or even about her beloved daughter. She is thinking about the body in the trench.
As soon as she saw it she knew. A skeleton, still clad in a few shreds of clothing, face down, arms tied behind its back. But what made Ruth catch her breath was what was on the end of one of the arms. An iron hook, almost rusted away at the point, crudely screwed into the carpal bone. When the body was excavated and she could see by the pelvic bones that it was female, she was even more convinced that she was looking at the skeleton of Jemima Green, otherwise known as Mother Hook. Even Ruth, who avoids ‘real crime’ stories like the plague (though she’s actually quite interested in the plague), has heard of Mother Hook, probably the most notorious murderess in Norfolk’s history. A so-called baby farmer, Jemima Green was convicted of murdering a child who had been fostered out to her in a nightmarish Victorian version of childminding. It was thought at the time that she may have killed as many as twenty more. She was one of the last women hanged at the castle, doubtless in front of a capacity crowd. Yet her name had lived on. Partly it was the grisly fascination of the hook. From Peter Pan onwards, metal limbs have added to the horror of pantomime villains. And the fact that Jemima Green had a hook instead of a hand added to the idea of a woman lost to all natural instincts, a mother who killed instead of cherishing. The hand that rocks the cradle became an instrument of torture. Without realising it, Ruth starts to drive faster, almost missing the turning for the A47.
If they have found the remains of Mother Hook, the publicity implications are tremendous. There have been countless books written about Jemima Green, even a rather dubious musical comedy entitled Hook, Line and Sinker. No wonder a TV programme is interested. But every time Ruth thinks about the skeleton, still with a hood over its head, iron hook glinting in the light, she feels a chill to the bone. She almost feels like saying that she doesn’t want to be involved in this dig any more but, remembering Phil’s ecstatic expression, she knows that she has no chance of escaping.
Kate is asleep by the time she reaches Sandra’s house, which only adds to Ruth’s feeling of guilt. She carries her daughter out to the car but, as she manoeuvres her into the baby seat, Kate wakes up. ‘Mum’, she says accusingly.
‘Hi Kate. We’re going home.’
‘Home,’ says Kate, shutting her eyes.
Home. As Ruth drives through the summer evening, past the outskirts of King’s Lynn, the tantalising glimpses of sea, the caravan parks filling up for the season, she thinks about their home, hers and Kate’s. Ruth lives in an isolated cottage on the very edge of the Saltmarsh. For most of the year her only neighbours are the birds that fly above the coarse grass and sand dunes leading to the sea. Sometimes she has the company of her nomadic Indigenous Australian neighbour, Bob Woolunga, or the weekenders who have the cottage on the other side. But mostly it’s just her and Kate. And mostly that’s just how Ruth likes it. But recently, particularly this winter when they were snowed in for several days, she has begun to wonder if this is really the best place to bring up a child. Shouldn’t she be nearer to civilisation, playgroups, Chinese takeaways, that sort of thing? The trouble is that Ruth doesn’t always like civilisation very much.
It’s still light when she reaches her house but the shadows are darkening. The security light (fitted by Nelson three years ago) comes on as she carries a still-sleeping Kate up to the front door. Ruth’s ginger cat, Flint, greets them enthusiastically, weaving around Ruth’s legs as she climbs the stairs with Kate in her arms. ‘Don’t wake up,’ Ruth implores silently. She loves her daughter more than life itself, but the prospect of an evening watching TV with Flint and a glass of wine is more attractive than the thought of hours singing nursery rhymes and reading about Dora the Explorer. But though Kate snuffles and sighs when Ruth puts her in her bed, she doesn’t wake up. Ruth tiptoes downstairs with Flint close on her heels. He wants to make sure that his supper is her highest priority. Ruth feeds Flint, makes herself a sandwich and pours a glass of red. Then she pushes a pile of books off the sofa and sits down to flick through the channels. Cookery? No thanks, she has enough problems with her weight without indulging in cupcake porn. restoration Homes? No, her sympathy for people who buy million-pound mansions and then have trouble with dry rot in the orangery is limited. The News? Oh, all right then. She really should know something about the real world.
The screen shows a heavily built dark-haired man scowling at the camera.
‘DCI Harry Nelson,’ says the announcer, ‘refused to comment today, but King’s Lynn police confirmed that they are questioning thirty-seven-year-old Liz Donaldson in connection with the deaths of her three children.’
Now the picture is of a blonde woman, laughing as she holds her baby in her arms.
By the time DCI Harry Nelson reaches home he feels as if he’s been awake for several years. Seeing his wife’s car on the drive he wishes, for almost the first time in their married life, that Michelle was out with the girls or visiting her mother, not waiting for him with a hot meal and wanting to know the details of his day. What can he say? I’ve been questioning a young mother, a woman not unlike you – attractive, independent, intelligent – asking her if she held a pillow over the mouths of her three children and choked the life out of them. I’ve been asking a woman who has just lost her third child whether her loss was not, in fact, tragedy but outright murder. I’ve been doing this in the face of open hostility from my team. Judy, who believes Liz Donaldson is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Clough, who says ‘no mum could do a thing like that’ though he knows that they can and do. Even Tim, who Nelson has brought down from Blackpool to be the calm voice of reason on the team, says he feels uncomfortable about the whole process.
‘The coroner found natural causes in the cases of the first two children. It’s possible that we’re talking about a congenital health defect here.’ Possible but not, in Nelson’s view, probable. He’s been involved in cases like this before and he knows that it goes against all human feelings to believe a mother capable of killing her children. As a devoted father he finds it rather insulting to realise that people are all too happy to pin the blame on Daddy. But Mummy . . . Mummy’s different.
Michelle comes out of the kitchen when she hears his key in the lock. As usual she looks beautiful, still wearing her work outfit of tight grey dress and high heels. Her blonde hair is tied back in a complicated French plait and her careful make-up is only slightly smudged around the eyes. The house is filled with the savoury aroma of shepherd’s pie. It is true, as Nelson’s mother is always telling him, that he really does have the perfect wife. What would it be like to come home to Ruth? She’d probably be slouched on the sofa with her cat, drinking wine and watching intellectual crap on the telly. Nelson shakes his head, annoyed with himself. Why the hell is he thinking about Ruth?
‘Hi love,’ says Michelle, inclining her scented head for a kiss. ‘Good day?’
‘Your mum rang to say she’d seen you on TV.’
Nelson groans, opening the fridge and searching for a beer. As if things weren’t bad enough, now his mother’s on the warpath.
‘It’s that case,’ he says. ‘The woman with her kids. All the press are on to it. We’ve even had calls from the States. Whitcliffe’s in seventh heaven.’
Gerry Whitcliffe, Nelson’s boss, adores publicity. One of the many ways in which he and Nelson are diametrically opposed.
‘Do you really think she did it?’ asks Michelle, getting the plates out of the oven. ‘Killed all three of her children?’
Nelson sits at the kitchen table and holds the sweating beer can against his forehead.
‘I don’t know,’ he says wearily. ‘But I have to consider the possibility. That’s my job.’
The problem is he does think she did it. As soon as he saw Liz Donaldson, he suspected her. He hadn’t been the first on the scene when the hospital had reported a sudden infant death. That had been DS Judy Johnson with her training in child protection and family liaison, not to mention bereavement support, grief counselling and all the rest of it. Judy had visited the Donaldsons’ home with the family doctor, following police procedure. She had asked sensitive questions and had seen the site of death (a cot in an upstairs bedroom). Judy had reported that the mother displayed the calm, almost disconnected, manner of a person deeply in shock. That had set Nelson’s alarm bells ringing for a start. Calm? Disconnected? If anything happened to one of his daughters he’d be climbing the walls. He remembered the occasion last summer when Kate was in danger and Ruth’s wild eyes as she’d clung to him, begging him to save their daughter. Calm certainly didn’t describe either of them. But Judy said that it was a perfectly natural reaction.
‘She’ll be feeling unreal, almost as though she’s sleepwalking. remember, she’s already lost two babies. She won’t be able to believe that it’s happening again.’
But, of course, it was this tragic history that had sent Nelson to Liz Donaldson’s door. One infant death and you get a caring family officer, three and you get a DCI with a notebook and a nasty suspicious mind. Judy had accompanied him, checking all the time that he was being sympathetic enough. And he had felt sympathetic, of course he had. The woman had just lost a child, for God’s sake. And Liz Donaldson was, at first glance, very likeable. She was tall and slim with short, blonde hair and a low, attractive voice. She had greeted them that day without animosity, seeming to accept the continuing police intrusion as just another burden that she had to bear. She had been on her own, which surprised him. Judy said there was a husband but they were separated.
‘That was quick. The kid was only a few months old.’
‘David was eight months old,’ said Judy, emphasizing the name. ‘And the marriage hadn’t been going well for some time. The deaths of Samuel and Isaac put a tremendous strain on the parents.’
‘All boys,’ Nelson had commented.
‘Yes. Which makes it more likely that we’re looking at some genetic disability.’
Biblical names, thought Nelson. But he kept this thought to himself.
Liz had invited them in. The terraced house was painfully tidy, the smell of lilies almost overpowering. Lilies for death, Nelson’s mother always said. The front room was full of cards and flowers. Nelson wondered if Liz had been thinking about David’s birth, less than a year ago, and whether the house had been full of flowers then. But now, of course, the tone was muted. Mauves and purples, footsteps on sand, angels and sad teddy bears. Deepest sympathy, in our prayers, safe in the arms of Jesus. Sitting on the edge of Liz Donaldson’s sofa, Nelson had surprised himself with a powerful animal instinct to run, to put as many miles between him and this tragedy-filled room as possible. But Judy was leaning forward, asking Liz how she was doing, whether she was getting enough sleep, enough support . . .
‘Mum’s just left,’ said Liz. ‘Bob was here yesterday but he was in pieces, poor thing. Sometimes I think it’s harder for men.’
Bob must be the ex-husband, Nelson noted. He thought he detected something almost smug in Liz’s tone. Bob was going to pieces but Liz sat, pale yet still undoubtedly whole, answering their questions with sad dignity.
‘I’m so sorry, Liz,’ said Judy. ‘But we’ll have to ask some questions about Samuel and Isaac. Is that OK?’
‘Samuel was six months old when he died and Isaac just over a year?’
‘Did you ever find out anything about the cause of death?’
Liz looked away, gazing unseeingly at a card showing a lurid night sky etched with the words ‘Safe in heaven’. ‘Sudden Unexplained Death in Infancy. That was what it said on the certificates.’
Nelson and Judy already knew this, having seen the paperwork. SUDI is coroner code for an unexplained death which doesn’t need further investigation. Nelson wondered who carried out the autopsies.
‘Must have been hard,’ said Judy, ‘not having any answers.’
‘It was almost the hardest thing,’ said Liz. ‘We just didn’t know why. Neither Bob or I smoke, we’re not asthmatic, neither of us have any heart problems. When Sammy died it was just possible to think that it was just one of those terrible things. But when Isaac was taken . . .’ Taken, thought Nelson. Odd choice of word. But Judy had been sympathising and empathising, all the time skilfully extracting the pattern of events. They had found Samuel dead in his cot one morning, with Isaac he had seemed listless and floppy, they had rushed him to hospital but he had died in A and E. David, like his older brother, had been found cold and blue after an afternoon nap.
‘I knew he was dead,’ said Liz, ‘but I kept trying to revive him. I kept on, even after the paramedics told me it was no good.’
Nelson made a mental note to check this story.
‘You’re a nurse, aren’t you?’ Judy was saying.
‘I was. Before I had . . . before the boys were born.’
The boys. It made them sound like a family, a happy band of siblings. But Liz Donaldson only ever had one child at a time, each boy dying before his brother was born. Nelson tried, and failed, to think how this must feel. He remembers now that Liz had suddenly leant forward and grasped Judy’s arm.
‘Do you have children?’
Judy had looked for a moment as if she might not answer but, in the end, she said, very quietly, ‘Yes.’
‘A boy. Just over a year old.’
‘Keep him safe,’ Liz Donaldson had said. ‘Keep him safe.’
Excerpted from The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths. Copyright © 2014 by Elly Griffiths.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block
London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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